Opinion: Free Market Minute

Injections ‘R’ Us

Anyone Want A Flu Shot? How About Another?

Following the government’s control over access to flu shots at the onset of the winter season, tightly controlled distribution has led to a possible glut—read surplus—of flu vaccine. What? Wasn’t it just a few months ago that we were warned of a possible shortage, and shots were only being offered to individuals in high risk categories?

Story after story warned of the possibility that many thousands of unvaccinated Americans might be taken ill with flu after nearly half of the scheduled doses were rejected in a contamination scare. Health officials warned that many of the most susceptible might not survive a bout with flu, indicated that tens of thousands of additional deaths might occur, and allocated the vaccine to the elderly, the very young, and a few other groups most likely to be exposed and vulnerable.

As we explained in an earlier Free Market Minute, the “shortage” was no fluke. When government tries to allocate anything, even flu vaccine, through non-price rationing, it is practically inevitable that it will either be too restrictive, or not restrictive enough.

Not surprisingly, trying to allocate flu vaccinations by government edict, rather than by medical consultation and price, has resulted in both a shortage and a surplus. If the government distribution plan had been too liberal, clinics would have run out of flu vaccine before all of the individuals eligible to receive it had been inoculated. Instead, the government scheme was too exclusive, too few patients received a flu shot, and doctors and clinics now have more vaccine on hand than they can distribute.

According to recent reports, at least 5 million doses are unnecessarily cached. There are hints that this latest mismatch may be alleviated by dropping all of the remaining restrictions that have so far prevented healthy people, those under 50, and people in low-risk occupations from getting an inoculation. In a real embarrassment of riches, the Centers for Disease Control is launching a “campaign” to get more people to take the shots.

As early as December 22, in fact, some states recognized that they have enough supplies on hand to expand eligibility. California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Arizona all had more doses available than takers. Louisiana, Florida, and Pennsylvania had too few available doses.

Government planners tracked supplies, along with potential recipients, but didn’t figure on slack demand by the time late December arrived. Mild early winter weather, a slow start to the flu season, and surprisingly large voluntary refusal of the shots, have left state agencies with as many as 200,000 unused doses. Despite CDC claims that a shot is still worthwhile, it takes about three weeks to build up a resistance to flu following a dose of the vaccine. Many believe that the season could be over before their shot becomes effective, and thus aren’t even seeking the preventive treatment.

Flu vaccines are reformulated each year, based upon the strains that scientists believe will be the most significant for the coming season, so “left over” vaccine, even if it could be stored and used later, would not even be desirable a year later. What’s more, flu vaccine is manufactured with egg products (which is why they ask if you have an egg allergy before you are treated), and the vaccine cannot be stored for use next year. Whatever “surplus” exists will be wasted—destroyed rather than used this season.

This would be called a “surplus” if price were too high to clear out the market. In this case, however, doctors and clinics are having trouble giving the shots away for free. Was the problem too much vaccine, or not enough?

Neither. This is what happens when we replace price and private decision making as a way to allocate vaccine, with non-price rationing schemes. The well-meaning government “plan” caused one kind of distortion—too little vaccine consumed—and left us with another distortion—too much left over, and that badly distributed. Some states may never get enough doses in time to be useful this season.

As an object lesson in socialized medicine, this vaccine debacle gets high honors. It’s exactly what we should expect when decisions are taken out of the hands of producers and consumers, and placed in the hands of bureaucrats instead.